In this section, Paul’s prayer, we are urged to give thanks for each other in the Church, as hard as that may be, and to have hope in God’s promise to deliver His gifts, even when trusting God’s goodness is hard. God has proved his trustworthiness by His work in Christ, and calls us to be faithful to Him by being more truly the Church, by being more faithfully ourselves.
vv.15-16 – Thanksgiving and Prayer
15 I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love towards all the saints, and for this reason 16I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.
The author (let us call him Paul from now on) begins his prayer by assuring the Christians in Ephesus that he gives thanks for them, and the reasons he gives for this thanksgiving are instructive. He gives two: (i) their “faith in the Lord Jesus” and; (ii) their “love towards all the saints” (v.15).
Those of us who have interacted with the Church as queer people can at times feel like few in the Church give thanks for us in this way. We are tolerated, and even at times actively included, but I can’t imagine a church leader announcing in the pulpit that “I do not cease to give thanks for you” (v.16) in the way that Paul does here.
Paul’s prayer starts with the Good News that two things are causes for rejoicing in the church, and two things only: faith in Jesus and love towards other Christians. Everything else is secondary to those things. Your queerness, your difference, your distinctness… none of those things should distract the Church from publicly giving thanks for you in the pulpit on a Sunday if you love the Lord and love your neighbour.
Even if our church leaders do not or cannot give thanks for us publicly, if we love the Lord and love our fellow Christians, Paul would be.
But it works the other way around, as well. There is an obligation on us to not only be the objects of thanksgiving in our churches, but to actively give thanks for our fellow believers as well. Even those we find profoundly difficult, if they love the Lord and love their fellow believers, are worthy of thanksgiving. And we should not cease give thanks for them “as [we] remember [them] in [our] prayers” (v.16), however counterintuitive that might be.
And if Ephesians suggests that all who love the Lord and love their fellow Christians are worthy of thanksgiving, then sometimes in order to be worthy of that thanksgiving ourselves, we must actively choose to love our fellow believers.
This opening passage suggests that the Church should give thanks for all who love the Lord and love their fellow believers, it prompts each of us too to give thanks for all those in the Church, and it suggests that we might sometimes have to choose to love them, when it doesn’t come naturally.
And it calls us to do all these things in the context of prayer, prayer for all in the Church as well as ourselves. This is what loving the Lord Jesus and loving the saints means. And it is a powerful message for those of us queerly working out how to approach the many different people who make up the Church.
vv.17-19 – Hope in the Spirit of Wisdom
17I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, 18so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, 19and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.
One of the things I have found to be true repeatedly during my journey of faith is that hopelessness has a habit of creeping up on me, again and again. Sometimes it is prompted by shocking events, or media frenzies. Sometimes it is little things. But that hopelessness comes time and time again, threatening to make me give up on thinking that the Church, faith and God could really have anything good to offer at all.
Paul prays here that that may not be the final experience of the Ephesian Christians. Rather than hopelessness and despair, he prays that “you may know what is the hope to which he has called you” (v.18). As Christians, whoever we are, we are called not to despair but to hope. That’s not to say that the occasional taste of despair or hopelessness isn’t an authentic part of the Christian experience – I really think it is, and read St John of the Cross if you aren’t convinced! – but rather despair isn’t the overall picture of our experience of God. It can be hard, but the overall trajectory is one of hope.
And this hope is a gift of the Spirit, from “the Father of glory”, “a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him” (v.17). Wisdom and revelation here are not in the sense that we usually think of the terms. Wisdom is not the wisdom of the aged scholar who has learnt witticisms and always has something useful to say. And revelation isn’t the sudden zap of prophecy from God to a person frothing at the mouth.
The wisdom and revelation about which Paul is talking here are the deeper Old Testament wisdom, the wisdom of Job and the prophets, the wisdom which Jonah found so difficult to apprehend, the sort of wisdom that trusts God’s power and God’s goodness absolutely. It’s the sort of wisdom that knows both that God has promised us good things, “the immeasurable greatness of his inheritance among the saints” (v.18), and the measure of God’s ability to deliver them, “what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power” (v.19). That’s a very different wisdom to witty aphorisms.
And if we grow in that deep, trusting wisdom, our eyes are opened to see the world in a very different way. The reality of the world, as it rests in God’s hands, is revealed to us. If we grow to trust God more completely in the spirit of wisdom and revelation, then we become far more resistant to the things that so often shake us and prompt us to despair and hopelessness. Hence, “with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you” (v.18).
I pray that I can grow in the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, to trust God more in his good purposes and power to deliver them, because then the gift of hope will be far more apparent in my faith and in my life.
vv.20-21 – God’s Power in Christ
20God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.
Trust can be difficult for queer people. Some of us have spent a lot of time hiding ourselves from those around us. And some of us have spent a lot of time hiding from ourselves as well. All that hiding begets in many of us a degree of internalisation, a self-dependence that makes trust a difficult thing to do.
Trusting God is hard for any Christian, but for those of us with added barriers to trust, it can be profoundly difficult; and learning to trust can be one of the most formative and fundamental passages of faith.
The writers in the Pauline tradition were good at remembering this. You can’t tell people to hope in God without reminding them why they can trust Him. And they had a very clear answer: we can trust God because of what He has done in Christ, or as Ephesians puts it: “God put this power to work in Christ” (v.20).
The power to deliver His promises is proved in His work in Christ. God takes this Jesus and proves His power because “he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places” (v.20). A human body, raised from the dead and enthroned in heaven, is the sign and seal of God’s trustworthiness.
And Jesus is enthroned not just in earthly power, but “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion” (v.21): He is raised so high that no nation or corporation or law or violence could ever touch Him. Jesus is raised “above every name that is named” (v.21): He is more powerful and trustworthy than our teachers, our pastors and priests, our bishops and public figures, the people whom we depend on and who have affected us most. He is raised above all things, “not only in this age but also in the age to come” (v.21): nothing will ever be more remarkable than God’s work in Jesus.
That God has raised and enthroned the body of Jesus is our cause to trust Him, not because of any great metaphysical equation, not really because there is something theologically profound going on. Paul’s point is that no one will ever do anything more remarkable than God, submitting Himself to be born a human, and dying and rising, and enthroning Himself as a human in heaven, over and above all the remarkable things of this world.
God is a God who we can depend on to deliver his promises. God is one whom we can trust.
But I don’t think that’s the end of the story. The Pauline letters continually remind their readers why they should trust God. And from that we can infer that the fledgeling Churches found it hard to trust God. So often, being unable to open up to God or trust Him with our lives, we are made to feel like weak or bad Christians. In many traditions, holding ourselves back is portrayed as the ultimate sin and barrier to a Christian life. But no. Ephesians paints a different picture.
When we find it hard to trust God, we are standing right alongside the early Christians, experiencing what they experienced. It is hard for any Christian to trust God, and how much more so for those of us who have reason to be wary of trusting others.
But at the same time, we need to be reminded why God is worthy of our trust, why God alone will never fail to deliver on his good promises, and that God in Christ is holding us gently through our holding back, coaxing us gently, slowly, to trust Him more and more. His purposes for us are good.
vv.22-23 – We are the Fullness of Him
22And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, 23which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
The Church as Christ’s body is a difficult concept, especially for queer people. How can an institution or group of people which seems so flawed and causes so much hurt be the body of Christ? What does that make the body of Christ?
But Ephesians recasts the metaphor of 1 Corinthians 12 to be read in a different light. The emphasis is not that we are all, with our different gifts and identities, members of Christ’s body, though that is most certainly true. It is rather that we who are members of the Church are so dear to God, that God has put Christ over all things for us. When Ephesians says, “he has made [Christ] the head over all things for the church” (v.22) that is not so much a statement about the Church, but a statement about God.
All that God has done in Christ is done for us, for we are so close and dear to Him that we are “his body” (v.23), even “the fullness of him who fills all in all” (v.23). God so loves us that He did his remarkable work in Christ, not for His own benefit, not as a means of enthroning Christ in glory as is Jesus’ due, but God has done this all for us, who are the Church, “which is his body”.
But Ephesians goes further, for we the Church are “the fullness of him who fills all in all” (v.23). God holds us so tight that as the Church we participate in God’s own life: we participate in God’s own being. When we are one in Christ, we taste what it means to live in God’s fullness, in His faithfulness to His self, His faithfulness and comfort with His own identity.
The Church, in all its brokenness, in all its weakness, has the potential, when it is working well, to show us what all that hope and trust in God might be leading towards: life as God lives it, faithful to ourselves and faithful to God who is the deepest reality of ourselves. The two go together.
When God asks us to be faithful to Him, He does not ask us to stop being ourselves. Rather, He calls us to be more faithful to Him by being more faithful to who He has made us to be.
For many of us who are queer, that is a journey that is painful and at times exciting. But God who calls us to trust and hope in Him, proves His trustworthiness by His work in Christ, and in Christ calls us to be faithful to Him by being truly the Church, by being faithfully ourselves.